Cricketing ranks are dwindling, but Victoria's most populous competition, the Victorian Turf Cricket Association's, is bearing up well. VTCA secretary Russell Pollock says the number of participants - 78 clubs and 240 teams in 25 divisions - has changed little over the past two seasons. Roping in junior teams in associations affiliated with the VTCA, almost 7000 cricketers are turning out every Saturday. To officiate, a mere 110 VTCA umpires can't be stretched across 120-or-so matches, so only the most senior divisions get the benefit of dual judgement -- an umpire at each end. In the second round of the new season, the first having been washed out, John Gascoigne took block for his 25th season of umpiring.
It's a patchwork of green and brown for the quilt cover but, stretching the bedding analogy, the wicket is a featherbed at the John Fawkner Reserve in Oak Park on Saturday and the St Francis opening pair of Richard Eilers and Chris Pike are untroubled in putting on 90.
On the first day, I'm not pressed into making any hairline decisions, the ball going nowhere near either batsman's edge, so my confidence grows with theirs. The slightly built Pike has been drawing on a cigarette before play and I hope he'll stub it out before entering the oval. He does, but later he tells me he's dying for a piss because he drank too much before the start of play. Nicotine and excessive liquids. Nerves, I guess.
As a lefty, he reminds me of former Test batsman Phillip Hughes. Crisp stroke play and a tendency to close the bat face nerdles anything left of middle stump unerringly behind square leg, but Pike's drives to the off are so assertive as to suggest a Janus dichotomy: the on and off sides summon two different batsmen.
He also likes a chat, and returning from a drinks break I indulge myself in sharing with him the 'Hughes' observation. Pike now shares with me his every thought, about the ball swinging late, how he needs to improve his footwork (another Hughes connection), and a mass of the niggling uncertainties likely to inflict most young batsmen in the VTAC's North A2 league.
My cosy verbal relationship, I now see, could be seen as colluding with the benefits of this beautiful batting strip, an impression enhanced by the 10-or-so LBW appeals against Pike and his colleagues that I turn down before upholding one of them in the final half-hour with St Francis well on the way to its 6-236.
When a ball, homing in on middle stump, thuds into Pike's pads the appeal in the 120-decibel range startles me. But this ball has gone perilously close to the willow. "I hit that," are his first words, as though seeking absolution, when he completes a single in the same over. John Wayne, and sundry war heroes, would keep such information to themselves. So should I, but I know I won't and when the formal talk of match play turns to conversation after stumps, this "I hit it" may be a credit in the bank when I casually drop the detail at the feet of PEGS captain Haydn McKeon.
Pike, compiler of 59, is joined by his captain Eilers, a barrel-chested veteran, who, the opener tells me, is coming off a 90 in a T20 match. The skipper is still in T20 mode, smashing 10 fours and a six in his 64 so that McKeon's key choices become just where on the boundary he'll place his pawns while this kingly attack unfolds.
I'm umpiring on my own in this lower grade. The captains' reports of 2011-12 weren't uniformly flattering, and, with the endorsement of umpires' manager Paul Jensen, I've put myself on a kind of probation in my 25th season of umpiring.
When both captains compliment me at stumps, confirming my hunch that today I've got all the 'ins and outs' correct, I'm a bit surprised at how chuffed I feel. Yes, this weekly challenge really does matter!
A bad career move for any umpire is dispatching the losing captain via the most subjective mode: leg before wicket. Not by any design, I've raised the finger only twice to at least 20 lbw shouts, and, on day two, I'm hoping the happenstance of one per team will see me through to the end of the match, But, no, my third dispatch has to be of the firm but pleasant captain McKeon, who, I now recall wished me "a good match" after we'd tossed the coin. Presumably, just now, he's not having "a good match".
Penleigh Essendon Grammar School's prospects appear as bleak as the weather on this second day, following a week of showers. The seamers, without trying, bowl outrageous off- and leg-cutters and when the ball hits a wet patch just on the southern side of halfway, a rookie golfer's divot appears. There's no displaced turf to tamp down, and the exposed mud deepens and lengthens as the bowlers keep revisiting the gaping wound. "I'll call dead ball if the hole produces a wicket," I assure the captains.
The chasing target, 236, also appears elongated beyond PEGS' grasp after the first three overs go in the book as maidens and we take a drinks break after 20 overs at 1/26. At tea, with 45 overs of the 80 bowled, the PEGS innings, at 3/86, appears eponymously pegged.
When an opener finally departs after leaving behind a plump pin-cushion of dots (a dot in the scorebook denoting no run), the match changes.
St Francis's banter has suggested there can be only one result. A few references to teammates' weekend "dates" are agreeably uncrude and non-sexist, and a fieldsman reckons 'Pikey' would look good with a Mohican. Good-natured jibes among teammates are often what make the game enjoyable through the flatter spots and, not to be disrespectful to PEGS, only one result has seemed possible.
But now the banter is silenced because PEGS batsman Matthew Foster, who looks a bit like the young Tony 'Plugger' Lockett, is letting loose, thumping four 4s and a 6 in his rapid-fire 41, which ends in a mistimed drive to mid-off. And after I've presumably squandered my 'credit', sending the skipper on his way (lbw), young Sri Lankan Chris de Silva suddenly bursts out of his shell, emulating his namesake, Aravinda, the island state's own Little Master and hero of its 1996 ODI World Cup win.
One of de Silva's sixes clears the fence and I call for a replacement ball after being told by deep square leg that he heard a splash in the neighbouring Moonee Ponds creek, and the cherry hasn't surfaced. Rising tensions reveal themselves as the first replacement ball offered is too shiny for McKeon and the second too battle-scarred for Eilers, whose bowlers are taking a belting from the youngster.
The third and final offering is also scuffed but will have to do, and at last it beats the bat of a swinging de Silva, who has inched the innings ever closer to the target. His team is still 38 adrift when he falls for a gutsy 36 (three 4s, two 6s) and the last wicket falls at 198.
So far, so good . . . ahead of the shocks, surprises, gaffs and, hopefully, a bit of glee that lie in wait in the nine rounds left to us.